Pearls of Wisdom: Introduction

Folktales are one of the oldest forms of literary art, and are to be found in every culture in the world. From the beginning of history, people have used folktales as a traditional means of teaching moral and cultural values and as a tool for educating children and preparing them for adult life. Furthermore, most folktales from one culture have equivalents in another, and this makes them universal. Because of their universality, and the power and simplicity of their language, folktales are ideal for teaching language and literacy skills. This book is an attempt to promote, through the power of folktales, the teaching and learning of English language skills.

All but one of the tales in this book are either from Africa or have African roots. This book contains eight folktales from West Africa, one from Central Africa and three from the Caribbean. Two of the Caribbean stories, in turn, are originally from Africa.

Most of the West African tales are from the Fon ethnic group in the Republic of Benin. The African folktales in this book fall into four broad categories: explanatory tales, sacred tales, trickster tales, and cautionary tales.

Among the Fon tales, How Chameleon Became a Teacher is an explanatory tale that describes the origins of the behavior and appearance of chameleons. The Greedy Father is a cautionary tale. The Gold Ring is a sacred tale. How Yogbo the Glutton was Tricked is a trickster tale, and The Prince and the Orphan is a sacred tale that is a variant of the Cinderella story.

From the other West African tales, Why Hawk Preys on Chicks is an explanatory tale from the Ibo ethnic group, the third largest in Nigeria, whose great oral tradition has yet to be adequately documented. Why Cat and Dog Are Always Fighting is also an explanatory tale, this one from Cape Verde, an island nation off the coast of Senegal. Pearl of Wisdom is a cautionary tale from Gabon, a French speaking country in West Africa. It came to our attention through a broadcast on "Africa No. 1," a multinational radio station funded by France. The tale is about the importance of names in Gabonese culture in particular, and in African culture in general.

Monkey's Argument with Leopard is a trickster tale from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire) in Central Africa.

Anancy and the Guinea Bird is a tale from the island of Antigua. Anancy is a character who appears as a trickster in many Caribbean folktales, but who originates from Ghana in West Africa. How Goat Moved to the Village is a Haitian tale that calls to mind the biblical story of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18:23-25. The fact that one of the characters is a hyena and another a lion is an indication of the African origin of the tale. The Fisherman and His Dog is a tale from Puerto Rico, where many people of African descent have settled. Taino, the name of the dog, is named after the indigenous people of Puerto Rico.

Two of the Caribbean stories mentioned above are clearly of African origin and, as everyone knows, many people of African descent live not only in the Caribbean but also in North, Central, and South America. This movement of a people from their homeland to other parts of the world is known as a diaspora. See map on page xiii.

The African diaspora is the phrase describing the various groups of people of African descent who live outside of Africa. In most cases this diaspora was brought about by the infamous transatlantic slave trade, which took place over three and a half centuries, from the early 16th century through the middle of the 19th century. From 1519 to 1867, approximately 12 million Africans were transported on European slave ships from Africa to the Americas. The slave trade was conducted by trading companies from several European countries: Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and Denmark. Thousands of ships carried slaves primarily from the coast of West Africa to many colonies and territories in the Americas.

The forced displacement of people from Africa to the Americas resulted in the transfer of many cultural traditions along with the enslaved people. For example, in the United States, music such as work songs, spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, and rock and roll have resulted directly from the musical and rhythmic traditions that the slaves brought with them from Africa. In the other countries of the diaspora, different types of music have evolved directly from West African musical traditions.

Another result of the African diaspora has been the spread of the African oral tradition. This oral tradition has survived among people of African descent even into the twenty-first century. This book is a sampling of the multitude of stories from this tradition, collected and told to you by a West African "griot," or storyteller, who brings them to you from his native Africa and countries of the African diaspora.


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